Reading the Odyssey
Homer’s Odyssey tells the tale of a mortal who suffers and who comes to know the “cities and minds” of humans. The travels and ordeals of Odysseus, as he moves from the ruins of Troy to the new civic possibilities of Ithaca, elaborate two constitutive myths: the first is the tale of the hero’s homecoming—the nostos, or “mindful return”—in which Odysseus gives up immortality with a goddess to instead regain his home, wife, and son; the second is the tale of the man who is defined by his wandering, his ceaseless turns and re-creations of self. In the first myth, identity is re-established amongst the fixities of city and kinship; in the second, identity is always in flux, perpetually made and unmade. Who is Odysseus—that “complicated man”? Is he a plaything of the gods, the very embodiment of trouble, or a new kind of hero—one who makes his own way, by whatever means, through an increasingly mortal, increasingly demystified world?
Working with the recently published translation of the Odyssey by Emily Wilson—which is the first English rendering of the poem by a woman and which is especially meticulous in its representation of female and non-free characters—we will pay particular attention to the paradoxes of Odysseus’ identity as it’s shaped through his adventures among Cyclopes, sorceresses, Underworld ghosts, and Sirens, as well as by his encounters, more mundane, but no less potentially deadly, with dangerous, indolent aristocrats. Is Odysseus a warrior, an outlaw, a trickster, a dealer, a husband, a patriarch, or a murderer? With Wilson’s translation, we will give sustained attention to Penelope, Odysseus’ equally complicated wife, and to the retinue of slaves, themselves much variegated, over whom Odysseus, Penelope, and the suitors rule. Finally, what kind of civic order does king Odysseus establish in Ithaca? What are its foundational terms? What are its political possibilities?